Diversity: the smart way to attract future leaders

Too often, it seems to me that the rail industry is stuck in the past. One stark example is that the rail sector is not hiring or promoting enough women.

As a result the industry is missing out on the skills and perspective of half the population.

A recent report published by Women in Rail spells out the problem. It found that of the 87,000 people working in rail, only 13,500 are women – just 15%.

Of those, half work in the operational, customer-facing parts of the railway, like catering, ticketing and station retail. These women are often the face of the rail industry, the people passengers come into contact with on a daily basis, but they are not representative of the industry as a whole. Back office, engineering, maintenance and senior management are still very much the preserve of men.

To an outsider, it would rightly seem shocking that only 4% of rail engineers are women, or that only 0.6% of women have progressed to director or executive level. Yet this is what we've come to accept as the norm. That has to change.

Though at HS2, 46% of the people working here are women, there remains an opportunity for us to make a step change for the whole infrastructure industry. It has to change, not just in the interests of women, but in the interests of the rail industry as a whole.

A more diverse workforce would benefit the industry. The wider the range of skills and experience brought to bear on a problem, the better the decision will be. Others are making tangible efforts, but we appeal to the construction industry to make greater efforts still.

Other sectors learnt this long ago. HS2 presents a welcome opportunity to really begin the process of change, but it's much easier said than done. Making the rail industry more diverse will be a generational challenge. The industry must work to change young people's image of rail engineering and get more young women into the profession at the start of their careers.

Far from the old stereotypes, the modern rail engineer is likely to be involved in programming, digital design, control and high-tech manufacturing. HS2 will be the first major UK transport project built entirely in the digital realm, using BIM Level 2 from day one.

At the peak of construction, in the mid-2020s, we expect more than 24,000 people to be working on the project, either on site along the route, or across the UK-wide supply chain.

To meet this unprecedented demand, the rail and construction industries need to prepare for a high-tech future. They need to attract the brightest and the best engineers and project leaders, whoever they may be and whatever their background.

High profile rail projects like HS2 have the potential to transform the image of the industry. Much of that starts in schools.

Statistics show that the UK's education system currently produces only 60% of the engineering graduates we need. Encouraging more young people to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will benefit not only HS2 but the whole economy. That's why HS2 is engaging with schools through its educational programme.

We have trained more than 70 staff as STEMNET ambassadors to support our expanding programme of school engagement, and spent more than 20,000 hours working with organisations such as the Smallpeice Trust and the Construction Youth Trust.

The new National College for High Speed Rail will create a clear career path to rail engineering jobs. It will be a one-stop shop for the next generation skills and expertise we will need to build HS2, and a beacon of excellence for the industry as a whole.

As well as creating the opportunities, we also need to change the way we work.

There's no shortage of research to suggest that women and minority groups have a more negative impression and experiences of the engineering and construction industry than a typical white male. But the average white male in the sector isn't having it easy either. Long hours, false self-employment, zero-hours contracts and difficult working environments are all too often the norm.

It doesn't have to be that way. To attract the brightest and the best of the next generation it can't be that way. At HS2 we will put fairness, safety and respect at the heart of everything we do. We will be paying the living wage to all our people – regardless of age – and we aim to create more than 2,000 apprenticeships at a range of levels, from school leavers to graduates and beyond.

We are committed to equality, diversity and inclusion. It is the smart way to do business, as well as the right way – and it is the only way to attract and retain the talent of tomorrow.

Reference: Transport Times, June 2016 Issue

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